Some things never changed. The way the bough of the ash tree arched in the wind over the lichen-clad gravestones. As a boy, Steve would mount the cobbled wall of the cemetery and take the short cut to Washingwell Lane. This detour would cut his morning paper round by twenty minutes at least. He remembered the trees, how their branches would waver in the young morning light. The sun would fire up the church’s eastern face with a fierce glow. The silver fields beyond the estate would blind him in winter. They were cold, bitter mornings. Once he’d made it to Battlelawhill. Its conical shape dominated the southern horizon like an ancient burial mound. He’d sit by the stone on top of it and feed the robins. The sky was vast here. To the east, Seaham boasted an ocean beyond its harbour while north, a wild network of fields began their annual cycle of birth and death. Closing his eyes, he’d shut out the world and welcome the sea breeze and the gull’s cries. He’d stay here, in that perfect world with the eternal sky towering above him. These memories crept up on Steve in lands far away; they lingered, each smell and sound on the cusp of fruition.
“….of course when you joined up, Stevie. I had fuck all else better to do, man.”
Greg stopped and looked at him. How long had he been talking?
“Y’me best mate, man.”
What could he say to that? Greg gave him a toothy grin, looking ridiculous in his red Arsenal tea-cosy.
“It’ll take me a while to get used to this, Greg.” His friend deserved a little truth. “Twelve years can do a lot to you. I’ve seen things, Greg. Things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. This might be all too ordinary for me; I don’t know.”
“Come here.” The embrace was a little too tight for Steve. “I missed yer, mate. I did time. I went in nick, hung around the wrong crowd, like.”
Steve held him at arms’ length. “What happened?”
“We robbed the Tesco and got caught. I was in for six months, got sold out by the others, I think.” He turned away and hacked a glob of spit onto the road. “Who can you trust, eh?”
The terrace bank ended at the Colliery Inn, and across from this the Rose and Crown stood out. Since Steve had joined the Army, the Rose and Crown hadn’t seen a lick of paint. It could certainly do with that now. Its walls were covered in the words that burdened the streets. A gangland culture had manifested now the mines were closed. The loss of jobs had created an unwelcome youth.
“Bring back conscription, that’s what I say, Greg. Sort some of these twats out.”
The thumping beat of a car’s speakers belted by. Its driver didn’t give Steve a second look, nodding to the staccato thump, an eye on the road and another on any approaching girls. Steve willed the vehicle to plough into the back of the hourly 152 bus to Newcastle Central, sending the driver though the windscreen and smashing some sense into him.
Had Charlie not leant against the door to the Rose and Crown, it would have collapsed. Or perhaps the door was keeping Charlie up, Steve wasn’t too sure which was the case. Charlie stared at a bent cigarette he was grasping between thumb and forefinger. Sensing the futility, he let out a gasp and dropped the cigarette.
Steve felt an overpowering gust of warm air as he stepped over the threshold. Not from the radiators but the locals themselves. His senses became intoxicated with their smells and the sounds of damn good banter. Tobacco, sweet and endearing to Steve’s memory, brought images of a grandfather long dead fresh to his mind.
“Why, Stevie man! When’d yer get back, fellah?”
“Good to see yer, fellah!”
“Good work, son!”
He walked a gauntlet of old men who had probably never done service or served overseas, but they were the ‘old breed’ from the dead industries. Drink had crippled many a good man who’d laboured most of his life. Work for people over forty, now their industry had died, was non-existent. Their lives were a cycle of drink and talk, about matters beyond their borders. Steve preferred to keep his old occupation quiet, the attention he got would induce the usual plethora of bland questions and comments. ‘We’re proud of you.’ ‘How many people have you killed?’ ‘Do you know so-and-so?’ Blah, blah – it was all so fucking boring he sometimes made his occupation up. He’d been a postman in Birmingham and a policeman in Burnley. The policeman job didn’t go down too well in the pub he was in, but the postman offered him peace.
A cross section of the community had nested in the pub. Cheryl caressed a full belly and rocked a full pram. Opposite her were two other friends who were also equally full. At noon on a Friday, it was the last thing a mother should be doing. Attitudes were evolving and there was a silent acceptance of single mothers. Had Steve not joined up, he’d be father to one of these wide-eyed babies; legs kicking in tandem and fingers curled in toothless mouths.
“Sit down, Stevie man. Yer makin’ the place look untidy, man. How’s the war goin’ then?”
Tel beckoned Steve with a wave of his hand, then to the barman, “Billy! Get this soldier a drink, man.”
Steve cringed inwardly at the word ‘soldier’. I’m not officially a soldier, he thought. Not officially on paper.
“What are you now, Stevie? A Sergeant? A Captain?”
“I’m a Mister, Tel. I outrank everyone in the Services. So do you.”
“Mister Steven Shanks it is, then. Been working out?” Tel squeezed a bicep.
The afternoon passed uneventfully. The crowd fluctuated, the chronic alcoholics remained in their places like statuettes of a failed society. Charlie brought out a handkerchief and hacked a gobbet of blood into it.
“Poor fellah ain’t got long left in him.” Si then pointed to George. “George won’t be too far behind him, either. Cancer’s a fucker.”
You work thirty years to scrape a living from the firm you worked for. The PM shuts the firm down; you go on the ‘rock and roll’, you’ve got arthritis, rheumatism, back ache, white finger and God knows what else – then you die at home in a confused, pissed and bloody state. Steve had enlisted to escape from this life and now he was back. At thirty he had plenty of time to fuck his life up.
How had Ferris died?
“Aww, fuck,” Tel said, this marking the entrance of one Sid Blenkinsop; gun nut, Army nut and Nazi. He halted at the doorway and scanned the table of four. Steve had his back to him but didn’t need to see. Sid was easy to detect.
“This fucking idiot was arrested three months back for pointing a replica at a bank clerk. Had the bank clerk not known who he was, you’d have had the Flying Squad tear-arsing its way into the bank, blowing chunks out of him. Sid wanted a loan. He’d been refused once; not fucking surprised.” Tel picked his nose and stared at the offending bogey before wiping it on his seat.
Their attempts not to arouse the gun nut’s interest were unsuccessful. “Geezers! Aright, dudes? Sub us a tenner, Tel.”
Tel shook his head.
Dixie shook his.
Si smiled sardonically.
“Go fuck yourself Sid, with one of your shotguns.”
Greg’s plain answer amused Dixie. “Bit harsh, weren’t it?” he asked. Greg shrugged his shoulders.
Sid laid a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Is that Stevie?”
“What do you want, Sid, a Newcastle Brown Ale?”
Steve bought a round of drinks. Cash wasn’t a problem at the moment but he wasn’t prepared to lend money out at all. They were quick enough to borrow, but getting it back was always a problem. You couldn’t trust anyone; the Army had proved that. He’d lost quite a bit of cash in those early years through trust.
“Been to Afghanistan then, Stevie?” Sid asked before his head shook involuntarily a fraction of a second.
For fuck’s sake. “Yeah, you could say that.”
That was the single most popular question for a civilian to ask a squaddie. The dilemma is, do you tell the truth? If you do, the likelihood of them believing you is low; that was, if you had killed. So do you lie to them, or divert the question?
Steve made a tactical choice. He decided to tell the truth.
“I’ve killed eight.” There followed an uncomfortable silence before he continued, “Of course, I could always forget you even asked that question Sid, because you should never ask a soldier that.” He kept his eyes fixed on Sid’s. “You might uncover some terrible truths.”
Sid’s shoulder twitched, sending beer slopping. “Oh. Okay. What’s it like over there then?”
“There are periods of inactivity, but there’s not much of that going on. It’s usually very violent and that’s the scary shit.”
The stabbing, the strangulation holds, the bulging eyes, the body parts and the fights to stem blood loss. Unfaltering images that would greet him like Chock’s ghost. His shadow had already passed the toilet windows, its arms up impossibly long like Nosferatu as Steve ran back from the contact point.
He fought to exorcise the image. “I don’t want to talk about that. Let’s talk about something else.”
“You lot still use the SA80 A2 rifle?” Sid’s eyes sparkled with interest.
“Aww fuck off, Sid!” Greg squealed.
“Stevie. Are you okay, mate?” Tel asked.
“No I’m fucking not! Do me a favour. Stop asking questions about my work!” The hand which held his pint began to redden.
Greg put his hands up. “Whoa, Stevie, don’t worry man. Sid – shut your fucking mouth!”
The table jumped. Glass exploded. Eyes shot to Steve’s hand. Shards had embedded into his palm and blood dripped on the table.
“Fuck me! George, can you get some towels up here, mate? Stevie’s dropped a glass.”
Steve was fixated by the blood flowing from his hand. Wasn’t it the same blood that had soaked his trousers after gutting the farmer in Sangin? The same blood that squirted from a Taliban soldier’s neck in Musa Qaleh? Squealing like a pig as his legs thrashed?
The guys watched in silence as Steve left the bar.